Designers spend a lot of time giving advice to each other. There has been a litany of books by designers for designers. There have been a few by business people on how design can benefit business. But there have not been many about the process of design and creativity at the most fundamental level of all—the human brain. Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine is that book. Released a few weeks ago, it’s the most important book to hit design in many years, because it goes to the heart of how the mind works and offers surprising and immediately useful ideas on the neurological origins of creative insight.
Through a series of stories about some of history’s greatest creative breakthroughs, Lehrer takes the reader into how those "aha" moments happen. By starting at the level of the individual and scaling up to communities, corporations, and even cities, Lehrer presents a measured and invigorating view of how our brains imagine new things. The book contains an endless array of helpful ways to think about creativity, but here are a few that struck me as most relevant to designers.
We often feel guilty daydreaming. The time spent in an extra-long shower or staring out the window feels wasted. But daydreaming is a critical component on the path to a creative breakthrough. The activity that takes place inside of our brains while we believe we’re daydreaming is unique and activates a part of our brain associated with insight. Lehrer describes the "3M attention policy" that has been credited with several innovations over the course of that company’s history. The policy was based on an intuitive understanding of creativity that has since been validated by modern brain research:
The science of insight supports the 3M attention policy. Joydeep Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London, has used EEG to help explain why interrupting one’s focus—perhaps with a walk outside or a game of Ping-Pong—can be so helpful. Interestingly, Bhattacharya has found that it’s possible to predict that a person will solve an insight puzzle up to eight seconds before the insight actually arrives. … What is the predictive brain signal? The essential element is a steady rhythm of alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere. While the precise function of alpha waves remains mysterious, they’re closely associated with relaxing activities, such as taking a warm shower. In fact, the waves are so crucial for insight that, according to Bhattacharya, subjects with insufficient alpha-wave activity are unable to utilize hints provided by the researchers.
We live in an increasingly complex world with increasingly complex problems that require teams of people working together. But sometimes what seems like a great team fails. Why? How do we best work together? How do we build creative teams with a greater likelihood of success?
To answer this question, Lehrer describes the work of Brian Uzzi, a sociologist at Northwestern University who sought to identify a model for successful group creativity. He analyzed what can often be a complex creative group endeavor: the Broadway musical.
He found that the success of musicals like West Side Story, one of the most critically and financially successful Broadway plays of the 20th century, can be understood by the nature of the social relationships of the creative team involved. Uzzi invented a designation called Q. Groups with high levels of Q are closely knit teams. Groups with lower levels of Q are essentially strangers. It’s the teams with the right mix of unfamiliarity and intimacy that are the best performers. West Side Story had the right mix of Broadway stars and virtual unknowns. And there is a clear pattern, Lehrer writes:
Uzzi’s data clearly demonstrates that the best Broadway shows were produced with intermediate levels of social intimacy. A musical produced at the ideal level of Q was two and a half times more likely to be a commercial success than a musical produced with a low Q or high Q.
We have a saying at Bruce Mau Design: “Amateurs going in, experts going out.” For a long time, we struggled to articulate the benefit of being a “nonexpert” in a field. We often talk about “fresh eyes” in design. When you’re working too long with anything, by definition, you can’t “see” it anymore. It helps to get a person unfamiliar with the work to give a fresh perspective. Well, it turns out that this is a fundamental pillar of innovation: Our habits form what’s called a ventral route. It’s like a rut in a road. It gets so deep that you simply can’t get out without outside help. Using a story about InnoCentive as a starting point, Lehrer describes the paradox of expertise in that it can sometimes become an obstacle to creative problem solving:
There is something deeply counterintuitive about the success of InnoCentive. We assume that technical problems can be solved by people with technical expertise; the researcher most likely to find the answer is the one most familiar with the terms of the question. But that assumption is wrong. The people deep inside a domain—the chemists trying to solve a chemistry problem—often suffer from a kind of intellectual handicap. As a result, the impossible problem stays possible. It’s not until the challenge is shared with motivated outsiders that the solution can be found.
Those few stories are really just the beginning. The book also talks about the reason why Shakespeare was so prolific (your social scene has a whole lot to do with your chances of a creative breakthrough), how an autistic surfer has revolutionized surfing because he is predisposed to obsessive even debilitating attention to his craft (something all good designers are familiar with), and how the human friction we experience in cities is the key to their constant flourishing.
Lehrer’s book works well because it tells deeply human stories to illustrate the underlying science that drives the creativity of the subjects he describes. It’s for that reason that this book is so important for designers. It helps us understand what’s driving our creative impulses and thought processes at the most fundamental level. Lehrer, the science writer, may have been an amateur going in, but he’s an expert now. And we’re all the beneficiaries.
Buy Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine for $15 here.